There’s a pervasive myth out there about coaching. Even though we teach that coaching calls on a broad set of skills, people boil it down to just one thing: asking powerful questions. By extension, leaders who buy into this myth come to believe that when they are coaching, they can’t share their thoughts. This narrow definition becomes quite the stumbling block for leaders who are learning to coach their people.
In an effort to avoid outright sharing, beginner leader-coaches often become adept at cloaking their thoughts and insights as questions (e.g., “Have you considered…?” “What if you…?”). But coaching isn’t just questions. As more and more leaders seek to strengthen their coaching skills, it’s essential to expand our concept of coaching.
What is coaching
The International Coach Federation speaks to 11 core competencies of coaching, many of which are equally applicable to leaders who are seeking to coach their people. In addition to “powerful questioning,” leader-coaches must learn to listen actively, communicate directly, create awareness, design actions, pursue goals, and create accountability. All of these are accomplished through conversation — through acts of speech, including but not limited to asking questions.
If you step back and observe great coaching conversations, you’ll begin to notice that leader-coaches make two basic “moves” in the conversation: (1) they ask good questions (to invoke insights, clarify, and explore), and (2) they share observations, including feedback, insights, ideas and ways forward. Simply put, sharing observations is the yin to the yang of coaching questions. But nuance matters: Just as coaches must learn to ask questions in an open, non-leading way, they must also learn to share open-ended observations.
The same characteristics that make a question open-ended also make an observation open-ended. To say something in an open-ended way is to say it such that the receiver must reflect on his or her thoughts, feelings and intuition to generate a meaningful, cohesive response. When sharing open-ended observations (as with asking open-ended questions), the person you’re coaching is invited to think expansively. In other words, open-ended observations result in the exploration of different perspectives.